HED:The Amish in Pontotoc County
By John Armistead
August. The most oppressive time in Mississippi. The sky is cloudy and a haze hangs over the narrow road ahead. Buggy tracks. The Amish community of Pontotoc County is very near.
In minutes I begin to pass simple, two-story frame houses set in the middle of pasture land. The tin roofs are shiny new, and behind each house is a barn with an enormous loft.
I park at the house of Danny Hostetler. Hostetler, dressed in a homemade denim shirt and pants and wearing an often-repaired broad-brimmed straw hat, is preparing to hitch two large Belgian horses to a heavy low wagon on which are two thick hardwood logs. He is taking the logs to the sawmill.
In the barn are several buggies of various sizes, all manner of harnesses, and sacks of feed. Two of his youngest daughters, barefoot and wearing long dresses and black caps, are playing in one of the buggies. Each is eating a green apple, and looks at me curiously.
“I came to get a basket,” I say, walking toward the house.
“Go on inside,” he replies, as he leads one of the horses to the wagon.
The family is one of 10 that has moved to Pontotoc County and established an Amish community.
The Hostetlers’ house, unlike the other Amish houses, is a farmhouse that came with the property. Other than removing the electrical wires and adding wood burning stoves, the family did little else to prepare the house for the Amish way of living. In the weeds outside is an old, rusting satellite dish.
As I walk toward the house I notice several of the older children – the boys in drooping straw hats and the girls in black bonnets – working in the vegetable garden.
Sarah Hostetler, Danny’s wife, walks onto the porch and smiles a welcome. She, like all her children, is barefoot and, like the girls, wears a homemade dress. “We’ve got fresh bread and cakes today,” she says.
Originally from Canada, she moved to Lawrenceburg, Tenn., with her family when she was a teen-ager. She and her husband and their 13 children came from Lawrenceburg to Pontotoc County over a year ago.
I notice one of her younger daughters putting a pot on the iron stove at the other end of the porch. Most of the cooking in the summertime is done on the outside stove. There is a second stove inside.
Another girl, 5 years old, glances back at me. She is standing on a bench in front of a narrow table. She is ironing patches which her 20-year-old sister inside is sewing into a quilt. The iron is filled with hot coals from the stove.
Inside the house several of the children are at work. Besides the daughter at the foot-pedal sewing machine, two girls are in the wide kitchen setting a long table. All 13 of Sarah and Danny’s children, ranging in age from 2 to 20, sit down together to eat every meal.
Sixteen-year-old Joe, still on crutches because of a bone chip in his knee, is caning chair bottoms. He was injured working at the saw mill, and is scheduled to have surgery at the University Medical Center in Jackson in a couple of weeks.
How much to re-cane a chair? “Ten dollars,” he answers with a grin. He has a broad, open face and blond hair.
Nonsupporting walls have been removed inside the house, making each of the remaining rooms very large. There are no pictures on the walls, only black Sunday hats in wooden presses to keep the broad brims straight. On each press is lettered a male’s name.
I pay Sarah for the laundry hamper I ordered on my last visit. I notice she has signed her name on the bottom of the basket.
“How much for the hats?” I ask, pointing at the broad-brimmed straw hat one older girl is making. “Seven dollars,” answers Sarah.
I speak to the 2-year old. She looks at me but doesn’t respond.
“She doesn’t understand English yet,” Sarah explains. She speaks in German to the girl.
Sometimes their dialect is called Pennsylvania Dutch, but it isn’t Dutch. The expression arose through a misunderstanding of the word Deutsch, which means “German.”
All the windows are open, but it is very warm in the house. Perspiration is soaking through each person’s clothing.
I cannot imagine how they survive in Mississippi without air conditioning.
I try on hats till I find the right size, and reach for my billfold.
Raise up a child
It is the last week of August and school has started. I walk up the lane to the one-room schoolhouse in the middle of a wide field. Behind the schoolhouse are two outdoor, tin-faced privies. In front of the school is a stack of firewood in anticipation of the cold days of winter.
Jacob Gingerich, the school teacher, leaves his pupils and comes outside to meet me. Gingerich is a big man with a big smile. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and is the only one in the community who subscribes to a newspaper. He takes the Pontotoc Progress.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, have 19 children. Only five are still at home. Two are married and live nearby. Their daughter Iva makes wonderful pies – apple, peach, cherry. Elizabeth herself makes delicious bread.
“I’ve left the timer on,” he says, leaning against a fence post beside the woodpile. “They are studying spelling.”
Amish children go to school through the eighth grade. They use the graded McGuffey Readers as did schoolchildren throughout the United States 100 years ago. In textbooks, like everything else, the Amish do not like change.
While their teacher is outside, the children continue to work, no one speaking. All are barefoot.
Jacob went to a funeral in Tennessee last week. I ask how he got the message about the death.
“A neighbor got the call and came to tell me,” he said. The Amish always find a non-Amish neighbor whose telephone number they can give to relatives in other places.
In order to get to Tennessee, Jacob took a cab to New Albany where he caught a bus.
Except for the rarest of occasions, the Amish do not ride in private automobiles or trucks. Jacob lives 8.5 miles from Pontotoc. It takes him just over an hour to drive his buggy to town. The Amish are not interested in speed.
There are several groups of Amish throughout the United States Some even use electricity. But not the Amish of Pontotoc County.
“We are Old Order,” Jacob says. “I have heard of some Amish going more modern, some even trimming the beards and cutting the hair short enough to expose the ears, but not us.”
He teaches the children in his school reading, writing and arithmetic. Plus English, which they will use with the culture at large, and High German, which is used in church.
Where is their church? “We meet in homes,” he says. “Our bishop is Samuel Hostetler.” He nods toward a farm on a hill rise beyond the field. It is the Hostetlers’ farm. Samuel is Danny’s brother.
Are the Amish evangelistic? Do they send out missionaries? Jacob smiles and gives an answer true to his Calvinistic heritage. “That’s already been decided, hasn’t it?”
The timer goes off and Jacob smiles again, says goodbye and returns to the schoolhouse.
September 10. It has been a week and a half since Princess Diana’s death. Updates of the accident, the funeral and the doings of the royals fill all the media.
I get out of my pickup at the home of Susie and Joe Hostetler. One of their teen-age daughters is standing on the front porch rinsing a cup.
“How are you doing?” I ask.
She smiles. “Trying to stay busy,” she says. The Amish are always busy.
Her 17-year-old brother is in the field in front of the house plowing with a team of three horses and a mule.
A small boy and girl are squatting down on the porch playing with kittens.
Their mother, Susie Hostetler, pushes open the screen door and steps onto the porch, smiling warmly. She is holding Amanda, 4 months old, the youngest of her 13 children.
Susie makes mud rugs out of fabric scrap. The oval rugs are of beautiful designs and colors, a sharp contrast to the drab clothing the Amish wear.
She looks at the boy with the kittens. “That one’s Moses. He was so cross this morning. He threw a kitten. He was just doing stupid. I didn’t spank him. I said, You go up to bed.’ That was more of a punishment. Having to spend the whole morning up in bed.”
I comment on the baby’s pretty blue eyes.
“I put this dress on her today because it matches her eyes,” she says.
“I was wondering what you all thought about the death of Princess Diana.”
She smiles and shakes her head. “I don’t remember any of that.”
“Most of the rest of the world is pretty caught up in this now.”
“No. We didn’t hear. Who was she?”
“Princess of Wales. In England. Killed in a car crash.”
“We don’t follow that. We’ve got enough to think about without that. How long was she a princess?”
“A few years. Do you all read any magazines?”
“We do a little. Some people like the elderly do. But, like me – I don’t have time.”
“I guess not with 13 children.”
She laughs a good, hearty laugh. “All I have to do is boss and keep them straight.”
The 14-year-old, standing beside her mother, giggles.
All of Susie’s children are still at home. The oldest, a daughter, is 20. She will be 21 in December.
“She will be her own boss then,” says her mother. “But she can still stay here if she likes.”
“When do Amish girls get married?”
“Not until they get a chance,” Susie says with a laugh.
“Does the family decide who they’ll marry?”
“No. We don’t, and I don’t wish for that. I don’t think that would be fair. They decide for themselves. Everybody’s got their own pick.”
“Do they date?”
“Ya. Well, we don’t go out like you do. They (young men) come to the house. That’s the way we do it. After work at night.”
Susie looks down at Amanda. “Time goes so fast. I want them to grow up, but love it when they’re babies.”
“Will you have a fourteenth? Or is this it?”
“We don’t know.” Laughs. “We hope, but we don’t know.”
“You hope which way?”
“We hope we don’t have any more.”
“Thirteen is a lot of mouths to feed.”
“In a way, but that all goes together. We all help each other. Everybody has a job to do. When Amanda is old enough she’ll help with the dishes. That’s what Mary does now.”
Mary, soon to be 5 and twin to Moses, has left the kittens and is playing with a young bird in a cage.
“My husband cut down a cedar tree and a nest was in it. He brought the birds home.” She jerks her head around. “Girl! I smell bread burning.”
There’s a flurry in the house as the older daughters rush around.
A little girl holding a homemade doll of fabric leans against her mother’s skirt and looks up at me.
“That’s Caroline,” says Susie. “She’ll be 2 on the fifth day of January. I got one on the day of Old Christmas and one on the day of New Christmas.” One of her sons was born Dec. 25.
“What do y’all do for Christmas. Exchange gifts?”
“A little. We might give each child a bit of candy. Maybe an orange or a coloring book for the little ones. It’s good once a year, you know.”
Behind her Moses and Mary are shoving at each other. He pushes her down. She jumps up and throws him into the screen door, banging it.
Susie hears and looks around. “Now, Mary. You want your turn to go to bed?”
A battered automobile pulls up into the front yard. Two women are sitting inside. “They’re wanting to buy eggs,” Susie says.
I turn to my truck. Moses and Mary are now playing in the bed. They scramble out as I open the door.
Muscle and sweat
It’s late September. John Hostetler, 22, is struggling to shoe a large mule. His blue shirt is drenched with sweat. His hat hangs on a nail on one of the posts.
The mule keeps trying to lie down. The mule’s owner, a non-Amish farmer, tightens the nose twist.
John is the oldest of Samuel and Emma Hostetler’s 14 children. All but the second oldest son, Eli, who is married, are still at home. The youngest is not yet 6 months.
In the yard beside the house are two wringer washing machines powered by small gasoline engines. The Amish use small engines to operate some machinery, including the saw under the same tin-roofed shed in which John is shoeing the mule.
John and his family moved down from Ohio. Besides helping his father with the farm and shoeing horses and mules, John has recently started making utility buildings out of boards he mills from pine logs.
“Some people have asked me what I was getting for them. I told them I really ain’t getting nothing yet cause I ain’t sold one yet,” he says.
He wants to sell the buildings for $800 to $900 each. They are very attractive.
He is finished with the mule. The farmer leads it back to the trailer.
“I’d like to get rigged up to make my own horse shoes,” John says. “I just started New Year’s.”
In Ohio his father, Samuel, built buggies. “But there’s not as much demand down here,” he says. “But I hope someday we can have a buggy shop.”
We have what we need’
It’s an overcast October day. Cool. Rain fell steadily through the night and the side roads are slick.
Joe Hostetler has parked his buggy behind Levi Yoder’s two-story carriage house. The two men are working on Joe’s leather harness.
Joe is thinking about selling one of his horses. “He might make a good riding horse,” he says. “I’ve rode him a couple of times, but he won’t hold the gait with the buggy.”
Most of their horses are standard bred. “They’re a little more flexible than Morgans and quarterhorses,” he says. The huge Belgians are used for heavy work.
The harness is fixed and Joe leaves.
Levi shows me his beautiful ringed-neck doves in a cage. He raises them just for fun, not to sell. “For fun” is not an expression used much by Amish. He also raises blue heeler puppies. Cattle dogs. He sells them for $35 each.
Levi and his wife, Lena, have 13 children ranging in age from 33 to 10. Nine are married. Four are still at home.
Three of their grandchildren are playing with a small wagon in the yard. School is now out for six weeks so the children can help with the fall harvest. This year there isn’t much to harvest. The crops have been disappointing.
Beside the house is a vegetable garden. Lettuce, broccoli, cabbage. Levi grins broadly and says, “It’s the woman’s garden. I can’t think of why her stuff grows in the shade.” He is obviously very proud of how well his wife’s produce succeeds. They grow most of their own vegetables.
In a pen nearby are turkeys and golden pheasants. A milk goat is trying to climb a small tree to reach the leaves. It’s starting to rain.
We go to the upstairs room of the carriage house where Lena and an older daughter are making baskets. The lighting is very dim now.
Oil lamps are on the tables but haven’t been lit.
Lena is wearing a white cap (white for married, black for unmarried) and round glasses. She shows me her baskets.
Egg baskets, napkin baskets, a double peanut basket, large baskets, small baskets. She wants Levi to build her another house before winter so she can use the small one they are now living in for basket-making.
Sometimes she places baskets beside the mailbox so people driving by know she has some available. Most of her business is on Saturday.
I compliment her garden, and ask how they keep meat without electrical refrigerators.
“We can our meat,” she says. “We butcher most of it. We didn’t have no hogs this year and this man is going to bring four and give us one for butchering.”
Levi and I go downstairs. I notice a buggy wheel, so new the spokes haven’t been painted black yet.
It was just delivered by UPS, Levi explains. “That’s our nephew’s. He had to send it to Tennessee to have it fixed. He was turning into his lane and a car was coming around. The horse tried to turn on in and the buggy got hit. Nothing hurt but the wheel.”
Buggy-automobile accidents are a problem in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where Amish are more numerous. One of Jacob Gingerich’s brothers was killed when a milk truck struck the side of his buggy one morning. They were living in Canada then.
The rain is falling harder. I ask why not cars and tractors, why not electricity and indoor plumbing?
Levi Yoder looks at me and grins. “We just don’t need all of that,” he says softly. “We have what we need.”
Amish frequently drive into Pontotoc for the monthly trade day at the fairgrounds. At trade day people come together to sell everything from dogs and chickens to guns and vegetables and second-hand toys.
At the November trade day the weather is chilly and rainy. Levi Yoder holds up a bucket of bolts for me to see before he puts the bucket in the back of his buggy. He is quite pleased.
“I got these for $5,” he says. “There must be at least 50 pounds here.”
His daughter, dressed in a black bonnet and cape, long blue dress and high topped black shoes, stands beside the buggy. “I’m taking her to the dentist before we head home,” he says.
“Good luck,” I say to her.
She climbs into the buggy.
On a cool day in November, I stop at the farm of Danny Hostetler. Most of the men and boys in the community have gathered to build a large corn crib-utility building. The building is as large as a double garage, only much taller.
They began early that morning and by sundown will be close to finishing. This is the way they raise barns and build houses, also.
Several younger men are on top of the rafters, pounding nails. Levi Yoder and Sammy Hostetler, the bishop, are hammering 1-inch plyboard sheets on the inside walls. At a concrete mixer outside, men and boys shovel sand, gravel and cement into the whining mixer. The smallest of the boys are bringing water in buckets to pour into the mixer.
The mixer, like the table saw on the other side of the building, runs on a small gasoline engine.
Everyone is talking and enjoying himself. Some of the men are teasing the younger boys.
I see young Joe Hostetler, Danny’s son, without his crutches. He’s shoveling gravel.
“How’s the leg?” I ask.
He grins and kicks it up into the air. The operation must have been successful.
A man standing in a heavy wagon drawn by two Belgians pulls up beside the building with a load of tin roofing. Other men immediately begin lifting the tin up to the men on the roof. Everything goes so quickly.
I comment to Joe Hostetler that everyone seems to be having a good time.
He nods and smiles. “Whenever we make a frolic, we work and then we eat,” he says by way of explanation.
“Yes.” He waves his hand at all the activity. “This is what we call a frolic.”
For the Amish, all work honors God and is pleasing to God. The harder, the better. To shortchange work by conveniences or time-saving devices robs God of that which pleases and honors him.
For an Amish, there is hardly anything more fun than coming together and working hard. It’s a frolic.